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Their existence may be accepted as received wisdom by those who want to believe, or rejected out of hand by those who demand evidence, but the concept of ley-lines, or, as its originator Alfred Watkins called them, leys, has nevertheless found a place in popular consciousness.

The latest episode in the fascinating history of ley hunting was the unveiling of a memorial stone dedicated to Watkins (1855-1935) by members of the Society of Ley Hunters at their spring moot last month, on the site at which Watkins conceived of the existence of leys.

Watkins envisioned leys as a network of expertly surveyed ancient straight tracks, punctuated by prehistoric sites (often overlain by later historic sites), such as beacon hills, mounds, crossroads, old churches, standing stones, wayside crosses, wells, notches, moats and tree clumps. According to Watkins, this network provided the most efficient means of travel about the countryside. However, if such a system was ever created, it would mostly seem to have been ignored by practical travellers ever since. Watkins himself was no long-distance ley-walker, preferring the use of a vehicle (sometimes his steam-powered car) to travel between mark-points while surveying the landscape.

Alfred Watkins

His family was in the milling and brewing business, but Watkins was also an inventor, pioneer photographer and antiquarian writer. He played an important role in popularising photography, inventing the highly successful and affordable Bee light meter, famously used to great effect in the challenging environment of the Antarctic by Herbert Ponting, photographer to Scott’s 1910 expedition, and he authored an early amateur photography guide.

After Watkins joined his local natural history and archaeology society, the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club, in 1888, he provided most of the photographs for its publications and eventually became its president in 1918. It is easy to see how his combined interest in antiquity, topography and photography provided ideal conditions for the idea of leys to form within his mind. Even his conception of leys as trade routes can be related to his time as a sales representative for his father’s milling business. On 30 June 1921, at the age of 65, the idea apparently came to him fully formed, in a “flood of ancestral memory”, as he paused with a map to view the landscape at Blackwardine crossroads in his native Herefordshire.

The idea of prehistoric landscape alignments was by no means a new one at the time and it seems likely that Watkins had been exposed to various theories at the Woolhope Club, to whose members he introduced his own concept in a 1922 address. He published a transcript of his findings as Early British Trackways, Moats, Mounds, Camps and Sites and in 1925, he published The Old Straight Track, a book which caused great controversy and provoked much abuse from the archaeological community in its day, and yet still remains in print (Amazon US/UK).

Public interest in the archaeology of landscape was running high, maps were now commonly available and aerial photography had also begun to reveal hitherto unknown prehistoric earthworks and landscapes. Consequently, ley-hunting became a cult pastime amongst well-heeled, rural car owners in the 1930s, who formed the Old Straight Track Club to meet and explore, and the Straight Track Postal Portfolio Club to circulate news and comment amongst members. Their records survive in Hereford City Library together with all of Watkins’ glass-plate negatives. In 1927 Watkins provided a field guide, The Ley Hunters Manual, for his followers.

While Watkins initially believed the makers of leys to have been locals, he was not above citing evidence from other parts of the world, James Frazer-style. Amongst the membership of the Straight Track Club were some who subscribed to a more mystic interpretation of leys, drawing on the idea of cultural diffusion from the mythical lost civilisation of Atlantis. Watkins initially acknowledged that leys would, with time, have acquired spiritual significance, but steered clear of mysticism in his published works, beyond a poetic reference, in the preface of The Old Straight Track, to the “Spirit of the British Country-side” hovering nearby when he experienced his revelation. Nevertheless, a year before his death, Watkins confessed to his son Allen that he had believed himself to be psychic. Prior to his revelation, he had suffered a heart attack and near-death experience.

Following the deaths of many of its members, including that of Watkins in 1935, and the intervention of the second world war, the Straight Track Club officially folded in 1948. While little evidence had emerged for human navigation along leys, the concept was nevertheless to be revived with a new emphasis.

During a UFO flap in 1954, French scientist, Aime Michel, claimed to have plotted UFO sightings along straight lines (more correctly, along great circles) which he called orthotenies, a finding published in his book Flying Saucers and the Straight-Line Mvstery. An ex-RAF pilot, Tony Wedd, who read both this book and The Old Straight Track put two and two together to make five. Also influenced by ‘contactee’ Buck Nelson, who claimed in his book My Trip to Mars, the Moon and Venus (1956) that UFOs derived energy from Earth’s magnetic currents, Wedd, in a pamphlet called Skyways and Landmarks, suggested that UFOs navigated along leys, which marked magnetic lines of force. With the aim of contacting the ‘Space Brothers’, Wedd formed the Star Fellowship.

Based on their interest in UFOs, Philip Heselton and Jimmy Goddard officially started The Ley Hunters Club in 1962, at the inaugural meeting of which Allen Watkins described his theory of the religious basis of leys. For him, the various kinds of marker embodied the four elements encountered along an initiatory path. It was John Michell’s book The View over Atlantis (1969) which became the bible of what would become known as the ‘earth mysteries’ movement, intent on a re-enchantment of the landscape through restoration of the Earth’s vital energy flows. In 1970, The Old Straight Track was republished, with a note by Michell, describing suggestively how Watkins had become aware of a “network of lines, standing out like glowing wires all over the surface of the country”. The ley became just one ingredient in a heady New Age brew linking diverse elements such as UFOs, dowsing, earth lights, sacred geometry, ancient metrology, astro-archaeology, myth and folklore, Chinese feng-shui and German geopathology.

Through the 1970s, the origin of the ley concept became obscured as ideas about energy lines and dowsing took off and became ever more fantastical, especially in the USA. But Paul Devereux, editor of The Ley Hunter magazine (1975–1995) took a different turn, towards scientifically-verifiable landscape lines and widespread traditions concerned with landscape, spirit and linearity.

In 1977, anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Rios found evidence to link straight paths over the Peruvian landscape with traditions concerned with the passage of spirits and the ritual use of hallucinogenic drugs. To explain this association, she hypothesised that the hallucinogen-induced sensation interpreted as ‘spirit flight’ (or the ‘out-of-body-experience’) may derive from the subjective interpretation of the visual phenomena known as entoptic form constants (geometric patterns like lattices webs, tunnels or spirals, which spontaneously take shape and propagate within disinhibited visual systems, especially with eyes closed), and which can project an illusion of rapid movement through an otherworldly space onto the visual field. She further hypothesised that the straight landscape lines (often linking shrines) associated with the cultures that she was studying were a formalised exoteric representation of shamanic spirit flight.

In Shamanism and the Mystery Lines (1992), Devereux suggested that spirit line concepts in other cultures may also have arisen from the universal human experience of hallucinogen-induced entoptic imagery and that, in the European context, some of these symbolic routes to the spirit world evolved into the straight ‘death roads’ or ‘church paths’ still used for carrying corpses to burial, while others, such as Irish ‘fairy passes’ retained more elements of their shamanic origin. Fairy passes are invisible routes between ancient earthworks upon which it was inadvisable to build, for much the same reason that the ancient Chinese art of feng-shui recommends not to site houses and tombs in places to where linear features (poison arrows) might direct the problematic energy of shar chi or ‘killing breath’.

While the spirit path concept can occasionally be discerned in the British context in the form of corpse ways or church paths, most Watkinsian ley alignments can not be shown to represent an authentic survival of an anciently-conceived symbolic alignment. Nevertheless, perhaps the spirit path archetype simply resonated with the hippy-era ley-revivalists seeking to contact visitors from other worlds via their own hallucinogenic trips within the sacred landscape of Britain.